James E. Rothman, Ph.D., the Fergus F. Wallace Professor of Biomedical Sciences and chair of the Department of Cell Biology, has been awarded both the E.B. Wilson Medal and the Massry Prize for his seminal contributions to the field of cell biology.

The Wilson Medal, the highest honor for science presented by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), is awarded “for far-reaching contributions to cell biology over a lifetime in science.” The Massry Prize, established in 1996 and awarded by the Meira and Shaul G. Massry Foundation, honors individuals who have made “outstanding contributions to the biomedical sciences and to the advancement of health.”

Rothman is widely recognized as a pioneering researcher in membrane trafficking, the means by which proteins and other materials are transported within and between cells.  

Rothman has made particularly important contributions to our understanding of exocytosis, a form of trafficking in which spherical sacs called vesicles fuse with cell membranes to deliver their contents outside the cell. Exocytosis plays a crucial role in the nervous and endocrine systems. In neurons, vesicles carrying neurotransmitters pass on chemical messages that govern movement, perception, cognition, memory, and mood. In hormone-producing endocrine cells, substances such as insulin enter the extracellular space or the bloodstream via exocytosis.

For three decades, Rothman has performed elegant, focused experiments that have revealed the molecular machinery of membrane trafficking in fine detail. Much of this work was done using an innovative “cell-free” approach, in which Rothman sidestepped the complexities of working with complete cells by isolating the intracellular components crucial to membrane trafficking. This strategy allowed him to propose that complexes of membrane-associated proteins which he named SNAREs are required for vesicles to fuse with membranes.

Rothman, who has spearheaded the creation of a new Center for High-Throughput Cell Biology at Yale’s West Campus, came to Yale from Columbia University in 2008. A 1971 Yale College graduate, he is the recipient of some of the top honors for biomedical research, including the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize and the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award. In June of this year, Rothman shared the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience with Thomas Sudhöf, Ph.D., of Stanford School of Medicine, and Richard H. Scheller, Ph.D., executive vice president of Genentech, for his work on exocytosis.

The ASCB, founded in 1960, aims to promote and develop the field of cell biology, and to ensure the future of basic scientific research by providing opportunities for scientists and keeping Congress and the American public informed about the importance of biological research.

The Massry Foundation was created by Shaul Massry, M.D., professor emeritus of medicine, physiology, and biophysics at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. The non-profit organization is dedicated to the promotion of education and research in nephrology, physiology, and related fields.